How do you know when you are having a feeling?
As the pioneer of the concept and full theory of CEN — or Childhood Emotional Neglect — I receive hundreds of questions every week about CEN, what it means, how it works, its effects, and how to heal.
Many readers of my books and blogs have very personal, thoughtful observations and questions to share. In fact, I have learned quite a lot from receiving, reading, and answering them.
Of all those many questions there is one that I receive over and over and over again. And then again. And the next day, there it is again. I get it so often because it’s a key piece of the cause of CEN and a key building block for CEN healing too. In fact, it would be hard to overstate its importance.
How do you know when you are having a feeling?
My answer to this question is not quite as simple as most would like. It’s complicated by the fact that every human being is different.
Note: Any one of these signs is an alert that you are having a feeling. You do not need to have all three.
The 3 signs above will, hopefully, alert you to the possibility that you may be feeling something and that is an excellent start! But the signs will not tell you what you are feeling or what it means. To help you with that, I created an exercise to guide you. I first shared it in my book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s called The Identifying & Naming Exercise.
The Identifying and Naming Exercise
Step 1: Close your eyes. Picture a blank screen that takes over your mind, banishing all thoughts. Focus all of your attention on the screen, turning your attention inward.
Step 2: Ask yourself the question: “What am I feeling right now?”
Step 3: Focus on your internal experience. Be aware of any thoughts that might pop into your head, and erase them quickly. Keep your focus on: “What am I feeling right now?”
Step 4: Try to identify feeling words to express it. You may need more than one word.
Step 5: If you’re having difficulty identifying any feelings, skim through the Feeling Word List in the Resources at the end of the Running On Empty book, and see if one or more words jump out at you.
Step 6: Once a word jumps out at you, say it out loud. “I feel ______.” Does it sound right when you say it? Does it feel right when you say it? Does it feel partially right but you need more words to describe it?
Step 7: When a feeling word seems like it may be accurate, you are ready to move on to the next step, which is trying to figure out why you are feeling that.
We will save Step 7 for another day because right now we’re trying to help you know when you’re feeling something. Learning the other feeling skills is easier once you have become more skilled at this first one.
Your emotions are literally physical sensations that reside in your body. When you fail to notice and acknowledge a feeling, it can become a physical problem for you or it can make you act in ways that may be undesirable or regrettable or simply confusing.
Learning how to identify when you are having a feeling is a vital skill for living a happy and healthy life. When you grow up in an emotionally neglectful family you sadly do not have the opportunity to learn it. In fact, you learn the opposite: how to ignore, deny, belittle, and block off your feelings.
Now, as the adult you are, you have the power to make some new choices for yourself. You can choose to focus, choose to learn, and choose to feel.
You can choose to start valuing your feelings and using them to know and understand yourself better. You can start down the path of healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s never too early or too late to choose yourself.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.
Marc’s parents divorced when Marc was seven. From that point on, he was raised by his mother, with occasional “check-ins” by his father. Marc’s mother owned and managed a deli, and had to work long hours to support Marc and his two younger siblings. Marc hurried home from school to pick up his siblings at the bus stop, made dinner for them, and often was responsible for getting them to bed.
When Alise was nine, her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As Alise grew into middle school and high school, her mother was at home, getting sicker and sicker. The more disabled her mother got, the more Alise picked up the slack at home. She cared for her mother, did the grocery shopping, and even fought with insurance companies over her mother’s medical needs.
There are many ways in which the child can become what therapists call, “parentified.” Addicted, depressed, financially pressured, physically ill, or bereaved parents are some examples.
Believe it or not, there is a silver lining to being parentified. Marc, for example, grew up to be a very responsible man. He worked his own way through college because he was determined to have a career. He didn’t want to struggle financially, as his mother did. Marc is now a giving, caring husband and father. He knows how to parent because he did it as a child.
Like Marc, Alise is also a very responsible adult. She’s a research scientist in the medical field. Alise is driven to find cures for incurable diseases, and she works long hours by choice to meet her passionate goal. She is a loving mother and wife. Alise is excellent at giving and care-taking, for her family and for the world. Because her childhood prepared her to be.
Yes, there are far worse things that one’s childhood can prepare her to be. In many ways, Marc and Alise are in an excellent position to live happy, productive lives.
However, there is a serious downside to being parentified.
Marc learned many lessons from his childhood. He works long hours and supports his family well. Yet as those around Marc thrive and grow, Marc does not. His wife, and the mother of his children, is an alcoholic. So while she repeatedly drinks, passes out, and drops the ball in caring for the children, Marc quietly picks up the slack. He tries and tries to help her get sober. He lives under a black cloud, and cannot see that he has simply re-created his childhood.
Alise is busy saving the world, and this is her blessing and her curse. She enjoys success and the love of her family, yet she grows more and more tired every day. Alise learned everything she needs to thrive in her childhood, except for one key thing. She did not learn that her needs are important. In fact, she didn’t learn that she even has needs. Alise lives under the same cloud as Marc. Each day she wonders what joy is. Each day she longs for what’s missing in her life.
If you were in the role of the parent as a child, your life is about to change. You are about to re-parent yourself in a way that you missed as a child. You’re going to start living as you were always meant to live and experiencing the joy, happiness, and care that you’ve always deserved.
To learn more about the parentified child as well as other forms of Childhood Emotional Neglect and how to heal from them, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free on this website.
A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral as When the Child Becomes the Parent. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.
Jared has done everything he can think of to make himself feel better since his father unexpectedly passed away two years ago. But he still feels blah and numb much of the time.
Sandra keeps choosing the same kind of guy over and over; alcoholic, angry, and afraid of commitment.
Claudia is irritable and bitter after her painful divorce. She can’t seem to get back to her old self.
All three of these people are stuck in some way. Each is suffering, each is confused. “Why can’t I get out of this?” they all wonder.
Fortunately for Jared, Sandra and Claudia, there is an answer, and it is the same for each of them. It’s a simple answer, yet it requires them to do something they dread.
Grief gets a bad rap, and in some ways, it should. After all, when does it enter our lives? When we’ve lost someone, or something, important. Grief only appears at times of pain and loss. But grief itself is not pain or loss. Instead, it’s a phase of processing pain and loss.
It’s a very natural human tendency to want to avoid pain. And it takes time to process a loss. This is what makes grieving so universally difficult. The three people described above are all stuck because they are avoiding their grief.
Jared is working hard, but to some extent on the wrong things. He’s trying to make himself feel better. But unfortunately, no amount of sporting events, dates, or successful work projects will help him process his loss and pain. He can only really move past his grief phase by going through it, not around it. This means he must accept his loss and sadness. Jared must allow himself to grieve.
Sandra wants to have the kind of healthy relationship that she sees others enjoy. So she keeps trying, over and over and over. Why does she keep repeating the same pattern? Because she has never grieved the father who left when she was 8 years old. “I don’t care about that jerk,” she’s said all of her life. Sandra is protecting herself with anger, because she doesn’t want to face, or feel, the pain of being abandoned by the man who was supposed to love her the most. Because Sandra isn’t allowing herself to feel, process, and work through her loss, she keeps recreating it. She keeps choosing men who will not really be there for her, and who will eventually abandon her.
Claudia was deeply hurt by her divorce from the man she was married to for 12 years, the father of her children. She was shocked and bereft when he signed those divorce papers. To cope, she has placed her focus on her children and making sure they have a life as close to normal as possible. Surely no one could fault her for this. But what keeps Claudia stuck in her bitterness and anger is not her focus on her children; it’s her failure to focus on herself. She needs to accept, feel, and work through her shock and pain and loss. She needs to grieve.
With all this talk of grief, here’s the good news. If you, like Jared, Sandra or Claudia, feel stuck, you may not actually be. You’re not facing a brick wall after all. You may, instead, be facing a phase. A phase that you can work through, and come out the other side. Yes, you know the solution. You need to grieve.
I feel sad
I feel hurt
I feel bereft
I feel disappointed
I feel empty
I feel lost
I feel alone
I feel let down
I feel angry
I am mourning
5. Choose a trusted person and share your feelings. Talking with someone about what you’re going through is incredibly helpful.
6. Remind yourself that grief is a process, and it’s not permanent. It’s simply a phase of adjustment that is healthy and necessary.
7. Don’t put a time limit on your grief. Everyone’s grief is different, and you can’t rush recovery. It will take as long as it takes. Period.
If you’re an emotional avoider or have a tendency to avoid your feelings in general, you’re at a higher risk of avoiding your grief and getting stuck. A tendency toward emotional avoidance is a sign that you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family. Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire.
To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens to the child and how to stop avoiding your feelings see the book, Running on Empty.
A version of this article was originally posted on Psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.
Consider this brief exchange from Abby’s therapy session:
Abby grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, but neither she nor her therapist is aware of this. Abby has begun therapy with Dr. Simmons because her PCP became concerned that she might be depressed and referred her.
Abby: I don’t know what my problem is, Dr. Simmons. I should be happy to see my parents, but every time I go there all I want to do is leave.
Dr. Simmons: What exactly happened while you were there on Sunday? Something must be happening that makes you want to get out of there.
Abby: We were sitting around the table having roast beef for Sunday dinner. Everyone was talking, and I just suddenly wanted to get the hell out of there for no reason at all.
Dr. Simmons: What were you all talking about? Something about the topic must have upset you.
Abby: We were discussing regular topics, nothing upsetting. The weather, the increased traffic in our area, my parents’ trip to China. Same stuff we usually talk about.
Dr. Simmons: Did anyone say something hurtful to anyone else?
Abby: Not unless “It took me an hour to drive 5 miles yesterday,” could be considered hurtful.
Abby and Dr. Simmons have a good laugh together. Then they go on to talk about Abby’s new boyfriend.
Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you.
Abby grew up in a family that did not notice, validate, or talk about emotions. Sensing that her feelings were useless and troublesome to her parents she, as a child, walled off her feelings so that she would not have to feel them.
Now, as an adult, Abby lives with a deep emptiness that she does not understand. She senses something missing where her emotions should be. She is living without full access to the font of energy, motivation, direction, and connection that her feelings should be offering her if only she would listen.
And, although Abby does not know it, she has lived through countless family dinners and myriad moments and days of vacuous, surface family interactions where nothing of substance was discussed, and anything that involved feelings was avoided like the plague.
In reality, unbeknownst to both therapist and client in this scenario, Abby is not actually depressed. She only seems depressed because she is not able to feel her feelings. And Abby didn’t “feel like leaving” the family dinner because someone said something hurtful. She actually felt overlooked, invisible, bored, and saddened by what’s missing in her family: emotional awareness, emotional validation, and meaningful conversation.
But she has no words to express this to Dr. Simmons. And Dr. Simmons, unaware of the syndrome of Childhood Emotional Neglect, does not know to ask about it.
Every day, I get messages from CEN people who are disappointed that their therapy is not addressing their Childhood Emotional Neglect. Even if they are pleased with their therapist, and also with many aspects of their therapy, they still feel that, in some important way, they are missing the mark.
Having talked with, or heard from, tens of thousands of CEN people, I would like to share with you exactly what CEN people need from their therapists.
Growing up in a family that does not respond to your feelings leaves you feeling, on some level, invisible. Since your emotions are the most deeply personal expression of who you are, if your own parents can’t see your sadness, hurt, fear, anger, or grief, you grow up sensing that you are not worth seeing.
Tips For Therapists: Make a special effort to notice what your client is feeling. “You seem sad to me,” for example. Talk about emotions freely, and ask feeling-based questions. Dr. Simmons’ question about the topic of conversation yielded nothing. A fruitful question might have been, “What were you feeling as you sat at the table?” When you notice, name, and inquire about your client’s feelings, you are communicating to your client that her feelings are real and visible, which tells your client that she is real and visible.
Growing up with your feelings under the radar, you learned to distrust and doubt that your feelings are real. As an adult, it’s hard to believe in your feelings or trust them.
Tips For Therapists: As you notice your client’s feelings, it’s also essential to make sure you understand why he feels what he feels. And then to validate how his feelings make sense to you and why. This will make them feel real to him in a way that they never have before.
How can you know who you are when you are cut off from your own feelings? CEN adults are often unaware of what they like and dislike, what they need, and their own strengths and weaknesses.
Tips For Therapists: Your CEN client needs lots and lots of feedback. When you notice something about your client, feed it back to him, both positive and negative — with plenty of compassion and in the context of your relationship with them, of course. This might be, “I notice that you are a very loyal person,” “You are honest, almost to a fault,” or “I see that you are very quick to give up on things.” Your CEN client is hungry for this self-knowledge and you are in a unique position to provide it.
Your emotionally neglectful family avoided emotions, perhaps to the point of pretending they didn’t even exist. Therefore, you have had no chance to learn how to become comfortable with your own feelings. When you do feel something, you might find it quite intolerable and immediately try to escape it. Just as your parents, probably inadvertently, taught you.
Tips For Therapists: Be conscious of your CEN client’s natural impulse to avoid feelings (Abby did so by cracking a joke, which worked quite well with Dr. Simmons). Continually call your client on emotional avoidance, and bring her back to feeling. Sit with that feeling with her as much and as often as you can.
Growing up in your emotionally vacant family, what chance did you have to learn how to know when you’re having a feeling, how to name that feeling, what that feeling means, or how to share it with another person? The answer is simple: Little to none.
Tips For Therapists: As you name your CEN client’s feelings and continually invite her to sit with them together, it’s also very important to teach the other emotion skills she’s missed. Ask her to read your favorite book on how to be assertive, and use role-playing to teach her how to share her feelings with the people in her life. Freely use the Emotions Monitoring Sheet and the Emotions List in the book Running On Empty to increase her emotion vocabulary.
As more and more people become aware of their Childhood Emotional Neglect, more are seeking therapists who understand the CEN they have lived through and are now living with. On my Find A CEN Therapist Page, I am referring clients all over the world to CEN therapists near them. 650 therapists are listed so far in locations all over the world. Yet the demand is great and growing and more CEN trained therapists are needed!
As a therapist, once you learn about this way of conceptualizing and treating your clients, your practice will be forever changed.
Therapists, I invite you to join my CEN Newsletter For Therapists. If you take either my 2 CEU therapist training, Identifying & Treating Childhood Emotional Neglect, or my 12 CEU Fuel Up For Life therapist training you can apply to be listed on my Find A CEN Therapist Page. I will send you referrals.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): When your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs.
This small, seemingly insignificant non-event seems like nothing to most people. Indeed it happens in every household, every family, every childhood that ever happened throughout the world. It’s true.
Every parent fails his child emotionally many times, and usually it’s not a big problem at all. This is where the word “enough” becomes important. When these small failures of the parent happen often enough and/or in situations that are serious or intense enough, this non-event, leaves it’s invisible yet impactful footprint on the child’s life.
Just like the sprinkles of pepper over food change the experience of the food itself, the life of the Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) child becomes flavored by the sprinkle of CEN incidents over her childhood. But the effects are so difficult to see and remember that the CEN child has no idea that her life should feel any different than it does.
“Doesn’t everyone feel this way?” she’ll probably someday wonder. Because she has no idea that the answer is no. They most surely do not.
When parents fail to notice their child’s emotions and respond to them they are, by definition, emotionally neglecting her. Children who grow up with their feelings ignored receive a strong subliminal message from their parents:
Your feelings do not matter.
What does a child do when she receives this message over and over again? What does she do with her emotions, the most deeply personal, biological expression of her true self? Fortunately, her child brain takes care of it for her. It pushes her emotions away. Away from her mom and dad and anyone they might burden or bother. And that, unfortunately, includes herself.
Parents who are unaware of the importance of their child’s emotions always fail their child’s feelings in other important ways. Consider the parents above who let the school teach their child not to skip class. They missed an incredible opportunity to learn more about her and her feelings, to talk her through a bad choice, and to teach her how her feelings and behavior work together.
So now our CEN child is growing up with her feelings pushed away, a lack of awareness and understanding of her own feelings and behavior, and likely also a sense that her parents don’t really know or understand her. This will drive an invisible wedge that will divide her from her parents emotionally forever, causing her to feel inexplicably alone and uncomfortable when she’s around them.
When our girl grows up, she will feel a deep discomfort within herself and a deep feeling that something is missing – (it’s her emotions). Lacking the emotion skills that her parents failed to teach her, her marriage may tend to be distant and lacking in intimacy, and her ability to recognize and respond to others’ emotional needs may be as difficult as recognizing and responding to her own.
Behind the gray cloud that hangs over our CEN girl, a silver lining glows. Since we know what caused her gray cloud, we also know how to get rid of it.
Since her parents ignored her feelings, she can begin to pay attention to what she feels and accept that her feelings not only matter but are essential to her health and well-being.
Since her parents failed to teach her how to name, tolerate, listen to, manage and share her emotions, she can now learn those emotion skills for herself. And she can begin to use them.
Since she’s been blaming herself for her deep feelings of emptiness and discontent, she can now realize that it’s not her fault. She didn’t ask for it or cause it. This will free her up to attack the problem and correct it.
As soon as our girl looks carefully enough she will see that her emotions are a reflection of her deepest self. She will see that her emotions are her friends, and will fill her, direct her and connect her. She will find the answers to the questions that she never knew to ask. And she will realize that the answers were inside her all along.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is invisible, so it can be difficult to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn much more about how CEN affects your relationships and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
This post was originally posted on YourTango.com. It is republished here with the permission of the author.
At 34 years old, Garrett is doing well in life. He has a good job and a girlfriend he hopes to marry. So Garrett is confused about why, each time he is alone, a sad feeling sneaks up on him. To prevent this from happening, Garrett stays as busy as he possibly can. He avoids being home alone, driving alone, or being unoccupied. When he is forced to be, he always cranks up his music or has a TV show playing on a screen to distract him.
Jolene is very intelligent and has loads of potential. But she lives alone in a dingy apartment and struggles to earn a living as the office manager of a failing business. Jolene is frustrated by her circumstances, yet she is held back from trying for more. She will do anything to avoid a painful feeling that overcomes her each time she thinks about taking a risk such as starting college, applying for a better job, or going on a date. So she never thinks about it.
Lizzy is a 48-year-old Executive Chef at a thriving, popular restaurant. She runs the restaurant with clean efficiency, and kindness toward all who work for her. People see Lizzy as competent, confident and happy. But inside, she struggles. When something goes wrong (as it often does) in her large, busy kitchen, Lizzy immediately gets a very unpleasant feeling which stays the whole day. Lizzy works long and hard to prevent errors and oversights so that she won’t have to experience that bad feeling.
At first glimpse Garrett, Jolene and Lizzy might seem to have little in common. But they are exactly alike in one very key way: They all have a Core Feeling that has power over them, and it affects how they are living their lives. And none of them is consciously aware that this is happening.
In truth, Core Feelings dwell all around you. They are in the people you know and among your family and friends. Everywhere. But no one talks about Core Feelings. Only therapists use this term, and yet becoming aware of your Core Feelings can change how you live your life.
A Core Feeling is a powerful emotion that’s based in your childhood and which comes and goes throughout your lifespan.
Children are like little computers whose brains are being programmed by their parents. The “software” for their lives is being set up by their parents and their families; the rules, expectations, feelings, and values that surround children are absorbed into their little brains. This all gets wired into them. It becomes a part of who they are. It defines a big part of who they will become as adults. It becomes a part of what they will feel as adults.
The folks most vulnerable to being ruled by their Core Feelings are the ones who grew up in families that did not teach them how emotions work. These are usually families who rarely discuss or address the feelings of their members. These are families that are, by definition, raising the children with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
If your parents fail to respond to your emotions as they raise you, they fail to teach you how to recognize, tolerate, manage, or express your feelings. This leaves you sitting with old feelings and, unfortunately, old, unprocessed emotions do not go away.
A Core Feeling is the one emotion that you experienced the most often, or intensely, growing up. It becomes embedded in the software of your brain. As an adult, this feeling is very real, and can at times be very strong.
Throughout the decades of your life, you are not always feeling it. But it dogs you. It hangs around on the sidelines waiting to break through to you. It tends to come, unbidden when you’re alone, undistracted, or otherwise vulnerable to it. Or it gets touched off by specific current events that activate it.
Not everyone has a Core Feeling, but many people do. Therapists know about Core Feelings and often identify them in their patients. Typically, though, they are viewed as an unpleasant burden. Most folks hope that if they avoid and ignore their core feeling, it will eventually go away.
Unfortunately, however, nothing could be further from the truth:
To understand how a Core Feeling develops, check back for my future blog which will describe exactly how Garrett, Jolene, and Lizzy got their Core Feeling, and how each of them processes it.
But now I’d like to focus on what to do with your Core Feeling if you have one.
Welcoming, accepting and sorting through your Core Feeling is a way to manage it. Essentially, you are stopping it from controlling you. You’re turning the tables and are taking control of it.
By listening to its message, you are building your resilience in three ways. You are increasing your tolerance for pain; you are building your self-knowledge by understanding yourself better, and you are improving your emotional health by working through an unresolved issue.
In other words, when you are tired of running, turn around and face it.
To learn more about your emotions, how they work, and how they may be affecting you, see EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
This article was first published on psychcentral.com. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
Growing up with your emotions ignored is a far bigger thing than most people would ever imagine.
As a child, to cope with the unspoken demands of your childhood home, “Keep your feelings to yourself,” you push your emotions off to the other side of a wall, and this is, without a doubt, a brilliant and adaptive move. After all, now those burdensome emotions are no longer a problem for your parents or yourself.
But when you grow up, it does become a problem. Something is missing inside you; a valuable resource that you need. If only you had full access to your feelings, they would guide you, inform you, motivate and connect you. Sadly, you are operating with a dearth of this rich asset that everyone else enjoys.
The strange thing about this missing asset is that even though you don’t realize what you are missing, you feel it. When it comes to blocked-off feelings, the body knows. Somehow, in some way, you will, in your body, feel it.
Some people actually say, “I feel empty,” and they can point to a place in their belly, chest or throat where they feel it. Others say they feel numb, lost, apart, at sea, or different. And others say, “I don’t feel things as intensely as other people do.”
Emptiness is unique to its holder, but yet it is always the same. It is your body saying, “You are missing something important. Wake up. Pay attention. This matters.”
Fortunately, there are ways to make your emptiness go away. There are things you can do that will powerfully change your life for the better. No, healing your emptiness is not simple, but it is definitely possible.
|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, let medication help||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. All of these items can be done, and improvement in one of these areas often will feed into other areas. 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, conscious effort and time. You may benefit from the help of a therapist. It is, though, entirely possible to fill your emptiness on your own, with the right structure and support.
An amazing result of working through the four steps is this: you will gradually learn to love yourself. Picture 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.
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 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.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn much more about how to reclaim your feelings and use them, see the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article was first published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with permission of the author.
How do you cope with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?
Growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up to struggle with a series of challenges as an adult.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you.
When you grow up this way you automatically block your feelings off as a child to cope with the implicit messages in your childhood home.
No Feelings Allowed.
With your emotions walled off, you go through your adolescence and adulthood lacking full access to a potent, vital ingredient from within: your emotions, which should be motivating, directing, connecting, stimulating, and empowering you.
When you are living this way, it’s hard to see the problem, or even that there is a problem. Most children in emotionally neglectful homes have no idea that anyone should be noticing their feelings, validating them, or responding to them. Then, when they grow into adults, they continue to have no idea.
Yet as an adult who grew up with Emotional Neglect, you surely may sense that something is not right with you, but you do not know what it is.
Once you understand that you missed out on a key element of childhood, you are finally freed up to fix the problem. You can give yourself what you never got — emotional attention and validation — and learn how to connect with your feelings and how to use them.
Childhood Emotional Neglect may leave you feeling somewhat empty and disconnected, lost or alone. But good news! There are powerful things you can do to cope.
These 10 strategies for coping with Childhood Emotional Neglect actually do more than just help you exist and manage your life with your CEN. They have the added advantage of helping to heal your CEN.
Practice these 10 strategies as best you can and you will not only survive, you will thrive. And in the most important way of all. Emotionally.
To learn much more about how CEN holds you back from learning the emotion skills, how that affects your relationships, and how to heal Emotional Neglect in relationships, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your children.
To learn much more about how CEN happens, how it plays out through adulthood, and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
find out if you grew up with CEN, Take The CEN Test. It’s free.
Way back in 2008, an amazing thing happened that changed everything. It changed the way I saw myself and parented my children. Ultimately, it changed the way I practice psychology. Here’s what happened.
I was busy seeing clients in my psychology practice. I was working with couples, individuals, and families. I was treating problems like depression, marriage and family conflict, anxiety, communication problems, anger and more. Some of my clients had traumatic or abusive childhoods, and some did not. My clients were a varied mix: plumbers, doctors, salespeople, secretaries, scientists, stay-at-home parents, and more.
Many of my clients had very little in common with each other, yet I began to see a pattern among them that appeared over and over again.
A remarkable number of very different people tried to express a particular burden to me — a burden they had carried through their lives and felt deeply, but never had the words to express. They all said it differently:
I am not like other people.
I’m missing something.
I feel empty.
I’m not alone, but I feel alone.
I am numb.
These folks were not damaged, traumatized, or mentally ill. There was no diagnosis to capture their struggle. They weren’t actually different, or empty, or alone, but they felt this way for a reason. It took me two years of delving into the question and researching to find the answer, and when I did I was very surprised.
The answer was deceptively simple, and not at all what I had expected. The cause of this burdensome feeling was the one life experience all these varied people shared. They had all grown up with their feelings ignored (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN).
As children, they all had learned that their emotions were not accepted in their childhood homes. As children, they all had, out of necessity, walled their emotions off. Now, as adults, they were emotionally numb.
Becoming aware that you are emotionally numb is painful, for sure. But understanding the reason why can be surprisingly hard to do. Yet it is the first step to stopping the pain of numb.
Since I wrote Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More, I now work almost exclusively with folks who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). As a therapist, it is the most rewarding work that I have ever done. Walking my clients through the steps of understanding is like walking them inward, toward their true selves.
Understanding that you are numb because your emotions are blocked off frees you up in a truly amazing way. Suddenly you realize that you are not damaged after all, and also that you did not ask for this. Suddenly you realize that your lifelong struggle is there for a reason and that it’s not your fault. You see that what you thought was missing, your emotions, are still there after all.
This is the vital first step to feeling again.
Once you cross the line from being baffled and numb to understanding, you will have a big decision to make. You will need to answer this question:
Do you want your feelings back, or do you want to stay numb?
If you wish to stay numb, you can go on with your life. Just like always, you will sometimes feel glimmers of emotions, but probably not when you need them the most, and not with the depth and richness they should have. Sometimes you’ll be aware of the numbness, and sometimes you will not.
In contrast, if you want your feelings back you have some work ahead of you. But I assure you that, albeit scary at times, it will be the most rewarding work you will ever do.
Are you making the choice to feel? If not, I understand that you may not be ready yet. It’s okay because it’s never too late to come back when you are ready.
If you are making the decision to feel, I am proud of you. You have chosen to challenge yourself in a way that can change your life. And you can take comfort in the fact that there are answers for you.
Your path is well-defined, and you are in the comforting company of the many thousands of CEN people who have walked this path before you.
Bit by bit, you can follow the steps to CEN recovery. You can take down the wall that protected you as a child but is now in your way, holding you back, blocking you off, and keeping you emotionally numb.
Piece by piece, you can tear down that wall, and fill your empty space. Step by step you can learn the emotion skills you missed.
Inch by inch, you can move forward, reaping the rewards of finally accepting, and learning to love, your deepest, truest self.
To learn all about the steps of CEN recovery and how to take them, see the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn how CEN is interfering with your key relationships, and how to fix it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
When you feel emotionally numb, what can you do? Is there anything that can make you feel better?
There are many feelings that can make us human beings uncomfortable. Anger, sadness, hurt, anxiety, fear, loss or grief, for example. Most of us would not choose to feel any of these. In fact, we will often go to great lengths to escape and avoid feeling them.
But there is one feeling that can be more intolerable than any of those. It’s in its own category because it is not like the others.
I have seen this feeling drive people to do extreme things to escape it, like take risks, harm themselves, put themselves in dangerous situations, or even consider suicide. Many people feel this feeling, but few have words to describe it.
I call this feeling the “unfeeling feeling.” The best way to describe it is a deep sense of emptiness or emotional numbness.
Here are some important facts to know about emotional numbness.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to notice, respond to, and validate your emotions enough as they raise you.
When you grow up with your feelings ignored or unwelcome, your young brain builds a wall to block them off. It’s an effective coping mechanism that helps you avoid being a “problem” in your childhood home.
But this effective coping mechanism backfires when you grow up. As you move into adulthood, you need your emotions. If you were a boat, your emotions would be your engine, anchor, and rudder. They should be not only grounding and rooting you but also motivating, directing and guiding you.
When your emotions are blocked off, your body feels it. Something vital is missing. You sense this deeply, and it does not feel good. Just as your body knows when you are hungry or thirsty, it also knows when your feelings are blocked. You are emotionally numb.
And now for the good news. If you feel emotionally numb, there is plenty of hope for you. I am going to give you answers.
There are two ways to address your emotional numbness. One is short-term coping, and the other is long-term solving. To truly address the problem it makes sense to do both. But in this article, we are going to talk about short-term coping. How do you manage the unfeeling feeling when you get it?
Trying to avoid or escape the unfeeling feeling will not work. It’s natural, when you feel numb, to try to escape it by using external or physical stimulation. That’s why so many people might go shopping, sky-dive, drink, use drugs, gamble or even harm themselves. When you’re feeling this, it seems like something extreme will solve it by making you feel something…anything seems better than nothing at that moment.
But when you take any action like this to escape numbness, you are only setting yourself up for more numbness in the future. Plus the numbness can drive you too far, so you are at risk for overspending, over-drinking, or excessive risk that might harm you.
There are, however, a few far healthier and more effective things you can do. First, it’s very important to take note that you are feeling emotionally numb or empty. Second, you must do the opposite of escape or avoidance. The key to dealing with numbness in the moment is to go straight at it.
In other words, the best way to cope with numbness is to try to reach your blocked-off emotions. To do this, you must focus inward, not outward. You must reach out to your emotions.
When you feel emotionally numb, choose an option above and do it to feel more alive.
But overall, the best way to not only manage but extinguish, emotional numbness from your life is to heal the Childhood Emotional Neglect you’ve been living with all these years.
To find out how to remove Emotional Neglect from your relationships, and banish numbness from your life by replacing it with connections to others, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.