As clinicians, we all know how to see and diagnose depression, anxiety, phobias, substance dependence as well as a myriad of other disorders in our patients. We watch for a certain cluster of symptoms, compare the number and severity with the description of that disorder in the DSM or the ICD-9, and presto. Sometimes it’s pretty simple and clear; other times, it’s complicated.
But it’s never as difficult as with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Here’s why:
It’s not memorable: The adult symptoms of CEN are not caused by childhood events. In contrast, they are in fact caused by childhood non-events. They’re a direct result of a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. Since this is not something that happens to a child, but is instead something that fails to happen for a child, the child’s eyes don’t see it and her brain doesn’t record it. The adult patient in your office has no memory of it. This makes it really difficult to see.
It’s not visible: CEN is often buried beneath depression, anxiety, phobias, substance abuse, or some other, more obvious or florid condition. It can also be buried beneath childhood trauma, which is far more obvious and memorable. Your client will likely be asking for relief from these more widely-known, visible symptoms.
There aren’t words for it: Many of the symptoms of CEN are quite difficult to put into words. People seldom spontaneously report and describe feelings of emptiness, the Fatal Flaw, counter-dependence or Alexithymia the way they might report panic attacks, difficulty sleeping or alcohol abuse.
It’s not well-known: Much of the public has been educated about the most common mental health maladies. Many people are able to recognize when they are depressed or anxious. Until now, CEN has received little to no attention. People don’t know it exists, or how to see it in themselves. It is my mission to try to change this, with your help.
Fortunately, there are ways to deal with all of these barriers. Here are the first five things (from the For the Therapist chapter of Running on Empty) to watch for to help you identify CEN in a client:
One of the first hints that I am sitting with a CEN client is a sense that the clinical picture doesn’t add up. For example, the client’s adult struggles seem inexplicable in the context of his description of his childhood. Since CEN is not typically remembered, many CEN patients describe their childhood as “fine,” leaving me wondering how these lifelong symptoms developed.
Watch for a client to feel guilty, or even angry at himself, for simply having feelings. CEN clients received a powerful message in childhood: Don’t Have Feelings. The adult will therefore blame himself and feel ashamed of his emotions.
Watch for a patient to be highly protective of her parents. Many CEN people’s parents were actually quite loving, and provided well for their children. The adult looks back upon childhood and sees the love and the material comfort, but can’t see what the parents didn’t provide: emotional validation and support. CEN clients can be fiercely defensive of their parents.
Many CEN patients doubt the substance of their childhood memories. “I feel like I’m probably exaggerating, it wasn’t really that bad.” “Isn’t this boring for you to listen to?” “I don’t know why I’m telling you this, it’s probably not that important.” These are all common statements from CEN people who are relating events from childhood.
Watch for Alexithymia, or Low Emotional Intelligence. People who grow up in homes that are blind to emotion don’t learn how to tolerate, identify, respond to or manage emotion. This is one of the most observable telltale signs in the therapy relationship.
Of course, identifying CEN is only the start. It can also be difficult to help your client see that he has CEN. This is why I wrote Running on Empty. My hope is to help people everywhere and their therapists identify what’s going on under the surface, put it into words, and join together to correct it. In the book, I cover the ten primary struggles of the emotionally neglected child in adulthood, the twelve types of parents who are likely to emotionally neglect their child, and a full section on how to heal, including a chapter For the Therapist.
“Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.”
-Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Neuroscientist, and author of My Stroke of Insight
Stupid, sappy, mushy, melodramatic, insipid, tiresome, wimpy, lame. These are all words that I have heard people use to describe their own emotions.
As a psychologist, I see in our society a poor tolerance for something that is a deeply personal, biological part of who we are as humans: our emotions. Indeed, if you grew up in one of the many, many households where emotion was discouraged or poorly tolerated (Childhood Emotional Neglect), you may now, as an adult, have a negative connotation to feelings of all kinds. You may see emotion as a sign of weakness.
You may hide your feelings from yourself and others; even the people you care about the most. You may regard the expression or sharing of feelings as maudlin, illogical, or just plain useless. You may have no idea what you feel or why because you have buried your emotions so deeply, even from yourself.
Why did emotion evolve in the first place? Sometimes, especially to emotionally neglected people, emotions feel like a burden. Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have to feel sad when we had a conflict with a friend, angry when someone cuts us off in traffic, or anxious before a job interview? On the surface, maybe it would seem easier if we didn’t have to feel those things. But my belief is that if we didn’t have emotions, life would not be better. In fact, it would not be sustainable.
Emotion is necessary for survival. Emotions tell us when we are in danger. They tell us when to run, when to fight, and what is worth fighting for. Emotions are our body’s way of communicating with us and driving us to do things. Here are some examples of the purposes of just a few emotions.
9 Emotions and Their Specific Functions
tells us to escape/self-preservation
pushes us to fight back/self-protection
drives us to care for spouses, children, others
drives us to procreate, create and invent
pushes us to correct a situation
tells us we are losing something important
pushes us to help others
tells us to avoid something
drives us to explore and learn
You get the idea. For every emotion, there is a purpose. Emotions are incredibly useful tools to help us adapt, survive and thrive. People who were emotionally neglected were trained to try to erase, deny, push underground, and in some cases, be ashamed of, this invaluable built-in feedback system. Because they are not listening to their emotions, they are operating at a disadvantage from the rest of us. Pushing away this vital source of information makes you vulnerable and potentially less productive. It also makes it harder to experience life to its fullest.
Emotions do more, though, than drive us to do things. They also feed the human connections that give life the depth and richness that makes it worthwhile. It is this depth and richness which I believe provides the best answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Emotional connections to others help us stave off feelings of emptiness as well as existential angst.
You and Your Feelings
If you have spent a lifetime trying to deny your natural, biological emotional responses, you may at times feel disconnected, empty, or unfulfilled in life. The people who love you may find you distant, self-contained, or even arrogant. You may find yourself irritable or angry more often than you would like.
If any of this rings a bell to you, please read more about Emotional Neglect throughout this website. There is much more information about it in my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. In the book, I talk about the many forms that Emotional Neglect can take, the 12 types of parents who unwittingly emotionally neglect their child, and the 10 issues that emotionally neglected children struggle with as adults. I also offer six clear strategies for overcoming Emotional Neglect.
Over 20 years of practicing psychology, I started to see a factor from people’s childhoods that weighs upon them as adults, sapping their joy, and causing them to feel disconnected and unfulfilled. This factor is so subtle that it goes virtually unnoticed by everyone, while it does its silent damage to people’s lives. I call this factor Emotional Neglect, and it’s the topic of my self-help book, Running on Empty.
Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to respondenough to a child’s emotional needs. In other words, Emotional Neglect is something that failed to happen in a person’s childhood.
In order to demonstrate why Emotional Neglect is so invisible, I’d like to do a little experiment. I’d like to ask you to close your eyes for just a moment. Get comfortable in your chair, and think back to yesterday. I have two things I want to ask you to think of:
First, I’d like you to think of an event that happened yesterday. It can be anything, big or small…just something that happened.
Second, I’d like you to think of something that didn’t happen yesterday.
My guess is that the second request was quite a bit more difficult to fulfill than the first. That’s because our brains record events as memories. Things that fail to happen go unnoticed, unseen, and unremembered.
Mental health professionals, as well as most of the general public, have long been aware of the fact that what happens to us in childhood has a tremendous effect upon who we become as adults. I have become aware that the opposite of this is also true; that what doesn’t happen for us in childhood has an equal or greater effect.
Remember that Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. Because it’s a parent’s failure to act, rather than a parent’s act; just like we saw in our little experiment, it goes unseen, unnoticed, and unremembered.
Emotional Neglect comes in an infinite number of different forms. It can be incredibly subtle, such that 50 people could be watching it not happen, and be completely unaware. Here’s an example:
Let’s say a child comes home from school feeling sad. The parent either doesn’t notice the child’s sadness, or says nothing about it. This probably seems like nothing. Indeed, it happens in every home around the world, and it generally is nothing.
So how could an incident like this damage a child, leaving scars that remain into his adulthood? The answer lies in the natural, developmental needs of children. In order for a child to grow up with a complete and solid sense of himself, who he is, and what he’s capable of, he must receive enough awareness, understanding, and acceptance of his emotions from his parents. If there is a shortage from the parents in any one of these areas, the child will grow up feeling incomplete, and lacking some of the skills and self-knowledge and self-care that are necessary to fully thrive in this world.
So back to our boy, who came home from school feeling sad. If this happens on occasion, it’s no problem. If it happens with enough frequency and depth: that what the child feels is not noticed, responded to or validated by a parent, that child will grow up with a hole in his emotional development. He may feel that his feelings are irrelevant, unimportant, or even shameful or unacceptable.
As a psychologist, I have seen time and time again that these subtle parental failures in childhood leave the adult with a feeling of being incomplete, empty, unfulfilled, or even questioning the purpose and value of his own life.
This becomes even more difficult when the emotionally neglected adult looks back to her childhood for an explanation for why she feels this way. I have heard many emotionally neglected people say, “I had a lovely childhood. I wasn’t mistreated or abused. My parents loved me, and provided me with a nice home, clothing and food. If I’m not happy, it’s my own fault. I have no excuse.”
These people can’t remember what didn’t happen in their childhoods. So as adults, they blame themselves for whatever is wrong in their lives. They have no memory of what went wrong for them, so they have no way of seeing it or overcoming it, to make their lives happier.
In addition to self-blame, another unfortunate aspect of Emotional Neglect is that it’s self-propagating. Emotionally neglected children grow up with a blind spot about emotions, their own as well as those of others. When they become parents themselves, they’re unaware of the emotions of their own children, and they raise their children to have the same blind spot. And so on and so on and so on, through generation after generation.
My goal is to make people aware of this subtle but powerful factor. To give everyone the ability to look back and see the invisible; have the words to talk about it, and an opportunity to correct it and stop blaming themselves.
I want to make the term Emotional Neglect a household term. I want to help parents know how important it is to respond enough to their children’s emotional needs, and how to do so. I want to stop this insidious force from sapping peoples’ happiness and connection to others throughout their lives. I want to stop the transfer of Emotional Neglect from one generation to another to another.
I want to give answers to those many people who are living their lives feeling disconnected and unfulfilled, and wondering what is wrong with them.
“What the heck is wrong with you?” “You are an idiot.” “How could you make such a stupid mistake?”
These may sound like nasty, abusive comments that someone might say to his spouse during a major fight.
Actually, they are typical, everyday comments that many people say to themselves on a regular basis. Many of these people would NEVER say anything that hurtful to their spouse or anyone else. These are thoughtful, caring people who would not want to hurt another person that way, because they feel compassion for others. The problem is that they do not have that same amount of compassion for themselves.
Why would a person “talk” to herself this way? I have often found the roots of it to lie in Childhood Emotional Neglect. When our parents don’t teach us in childhood the process of: 1) acknowledging a mistake; 2) figuring out what we can learn from it; and 3) forgiving ourselves and putting it behind us, we have no choice but to become our own internal “parent,” which we then carry forward through our adulthood.
In the absence of a balanced, forgiving parent who holds us accountable, we become our own internal parent. A child-like parent who is excessively harsh.
Attacking putdowns like these can become almost a habit. When you do not treat yourself with the same compassion you have for others, you gradually break down your own self-esteem and self-confidence without even realizing it. You are doing as much damage to yourself as you would if you were living with someone who put you down and attacked you constantly.
If you were emotionally neglected in this way, and find yourself with that harsh internal voice, the good news is that it can be fixed.
Here’s the Reverse Golden Rule: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone you love and care about.
Start paying attention, and catch yourself in your “automatic putdowns.” Consciously put in the effort to challenge those destructive comments, and counter them with more productive one. This does take work, but it is well worth it. And please don’t hesitate to find a good therapist near you.
“The Definition of Emotional Neglect: When a parent fails to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.”
As a mental health professional, you may be wondering why Jonice Webb is talking so much about Childhood Emotional Neglect. After all, you probably have it in the back of your mind often as you work with clients. We, therapists, know that emotion is important, and that if it isn’t handled well by our clients’ parents in childhood, there will be clear and direct results years later when our clients are adults.
As you have no doubt noticed over and over in your work, this clear, apparent observation on our parts, supported by the work of Attachment Theorists like John Bowlby in the 1950s and Donald Winnicott in the 1960s, is not so easily communicated to, or believed by, the population at large. I have found that people, in general, have great difficulty accepting that subtle emotional experiences in childhood have any effect whatsoever upon them as adults.
In writing my self-help book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, I have two goals which I am very passionate about:
1. I want to make Emotional Neglect a household term.
I want to make as many people as possible aware of the power of emotion, and how it affects us when our emotions are invalidated, ignored or suppressed; first by our parents in childhood, and later by ourselves in adulthood. I want to take a childhood non-event, which typically goes unseen and unnoticed, and gives it equal recognition and respect to the events that we talk about with our patients every day. I want to give you the words to talk about this parental failure to act with your patients, and a framework to treat it.
2. I want to make as much of the general population as possible more familiar with, and aware of, Attachment Theory.
Every day I see lovely people blaming themselves for having an issue. They blame themselves because they do not see the connection between their childhood experiences and their adult functioning. I hope you will look at my blog called Stop Blaming Yourself for more explanation of why I feel this is so important.
I have found that keeping Emotional Neglect in the forefront of my mind while conducting psychotherapy over the past several years has made me a far more effective therapist. I feel that for years, I was like the proverbial blind man, treating parts of the elephant – unaware that there was a whole elephant to which I should be attending.
I now have a way of understanding why patients who recall having had a fine childhood are struggling with self-discipline, emptiness, or even suicidal thoughts.
I now know how to understand and work with a patient who is counter-dependent or has low emotional intelligence, self-directed anger or self-blame.
I can address suicidal thoughts and feelings on a whole new level.
I have the words to talk directly to people about what’s really wrong.
Several months ago I was at a dinner party. It was late in the evening, after dinner, and we were all sitting around the table talking. I mentioned to the group that writing my book, Running on Empty, has been surprisingly demanding. At times when I would typically be relaxing, reading, or watching TV, I am now brainstorming, planning, or writing. But I explained that I am driven to do this anyway because I feel driven about my message: making people aware of the invisible effects of Emotional Neglect. As my brother-in-law, Rich, was listening to me talk, he said, “I’m going to send you something in the mail that you have to read.”
I didn’t give this another thought until I received an envelope from him a few days later. In it was, “The Common Denominator of Success,” by Albert E.N. Gray. It is a copy of a speech made my Mr. Gray at the National Association of Life Underwriters in 1940. Mr. Gray has now passed away, but his message is timeless. His speech, while geared toward helping insurance salesmen, applies to any human being who wants to be successful.
Here is Mr. Gray’s discovery of “the common denominator of success,” in his own words:
“The common denominator of success–the secret of success of every man who has ever been successful–lies in the fact that he formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do.”
In my role as psychologist and therapist, I have had the honor of working with many very bright, capable people who struggle with self-discipline. It is painful when a person who has tremendous potential is held back by their own ability to realize it. I have found that the very thing that gets in many such people’s way in fulfilling the potential that they clearly know they have, is an inability to make themselves do what they don’t want to do. Often these folks call themselves lazy. They get angry at themselves for not carrying through the promises they make themselves to do important things. The anger at themselves drains them and eats away at their self-esteem. Gradually, slowly, they start to give up because they are being taken down by a negative cycle of anger at themselves, frustration, and feelings of failure.
I have been quietly treating these people for years. I often can see early on what the patient herself cannot: that her struggles with self-discipline are rooted in her Emotional Neglect. Most people don’t realize that we humans are not born with the ability to structure ourselves. Nor are we born with a natural ability to make ourselves do what we don’t want to do. In fact, quite the opposite. We learn this skill from our parents. As a child, each time your parents called you in to dinner, interrupting your play with the neighbor kids, made you take a bath, clear the table, clean your room, brush your teeth, hang up your clothes, weed the garden or empty the dishwasher, they were teaching you the two most vital aspects of self-discipline: how to make yourself do what you don’t want to do; and how to stop yourself from doing what you do want to do.
Mr. Gray has helped me to recognize that these two most basic skills of self-discipline are not solely a function of childhood parental training. A sense of purpose is also an essential ingredient. Mr. Gray maintains that it is an individual’s personal purpose that drives him or her to make the choice to do things that are unpleasant, boring, or scary. That purpose has to be driven by feeling, not logic, or it will not be strong enough to do the trick. Logic is not a great motivator, whereas emotion is.
Now I realize that beyond helping people stop the self-blame and learn how to make themselves do what they don’t want to do, I also have to help them find their purpose. What do you feel passionate about? What do you really care about. Because once you find what you truly want and desire, your passion will motivate you far beyond what you think you need. And then you will be better able to make yourself do things that you don’t want to do.
I highly recommend reading Mr. Gray’s speech. It is beautiful prose, written in 1940’s (i.e., sexist) style. I suggest that you ignore that part, read, enjoy and learn.